The Broncos have moved on from Ja’Wuan James, but the Broncos are still going to be dealing with Ja’Wuan James.
The Broncos recently released the veteran tackle, a first-round pick of the Dolphins in 2014 and free-agent arrival in Denver in 2019, after he suffered what the team considered to be a non-football injury while working out away from the team facility. James believes his injury qualifies as a football injury.
“Claimant was not working out on his own,” James alleges at paragraph 5 of his grievance, which was filed earlier this morning and a copy of which PFT has obtained. “Claimant was working out as expressly and/or impliedly authorized and/or instructed by Respondent’s agents, including but not limited to the instructions and/or direction of the coach of Respondent and/or other agents of Respondent. Claimant was working out with other players on the team at the facility and mentoring younger players as requested and/or expressly and/or impliedly authorized by Respondent through its agent and/or agents.”
Citing “information and belief” (a lawyer’s way of saying “we don’t know this but we think it’s true and we intend to find out if it is”), James claims that the Broncos’ facilities were not in compliance with relevant Colorado COVID-19 guidelines. James opted out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns.
The argument is simple. Even though James wasn’t working out at the team facility, he was working out in a manner “specifically authorized” by the club, and not by himself but with other teammates, partially in a teaching capacity.
“[T]he intent and purpose behind the NFI designation — a highly controversial provision found in Article 20 of the CBA that was requested by the NFL in contested CBA negotiations — would not be served by designating the injury here as an NFI,” the James grievance contends at paragraph 15. “The purported historical purpose of an NFI designation is for protection against reckless and improper off-field player conduct. The intent was and is not to retaliate against veteran players (or any player) like Claimant during a global pandemic who are injured in the course and scope of employment when training for their Club and/or with the guidance and/or knowledge from the Club. A disturbing and dangerous precedent would be set by embracing such an interpretation that completely disregards player safety and basic dignity.”
James, who seeks recovery of his $10 million salary for 2021 (guaranteed for skill, injury, and salary cap) and his $5 million salary for 2022 (guaranteed for injury), is represented by Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas, along with Jason Setchen of Miami. Geragos and Meiselas previously represented Colin Kaepernick in his collusion grievance against the NFL. And while the James grievance does not currently allege collusion, there’s a strong hint of a potential collusion claim to come.
At paragraph 10, the James grievance points to the May 5, 2021 memo from the NFL to all teams regarding the James situation. The memo, issued directly in response to the James injury, said that “injuries sustained while a player is working out ‘on his own’ in a location other than an NFL facility are considered ‘non-football injuries’ and are outside the scope of typical skill, injury and cap guarantee. . . By contrast, injuries sustained by a player while working out at a club facility or as specifically or as specifically authorized by his club are considered ‘football-related injuries.'” Two days later, the Broncos placed James on the reserve/non-football injury list. One week later, the Broncos cut James.
Based on paragraph 17 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, James could be planning to argue that the Broncos acted at the behest of the NFL. For James, proof of collusion would entitle him to a doubling of his compensatory damages, pushing the potential value of the grievance to $30 million. (Under certain circumstances, proof of collusion also can justify early termination of the CBA. Without getting into the specific language of the CBA on that point, it seems clear that those circumstances don’t exist here.)
The Broncos will have a right to respond to the grievance, and to defend it vigorously. Undoubtedly, the Broncos will claim that James was told that any workouts away from the team facility occurred on a strictly voluntary basis, and that James specifically was told that the team is not responsible for any injuries occurring away from team premises.